#39 - what is the right feminist question?
on the Kardashians, botox, girlbosses and abortion laws
Last week I found myself in my Naturopath’s office, after having not seen him for about 4 years. The last time I worked with him I had recently returned from India and was paddling through a severe amount of change in a short period of time. Not surprisingly, my face broke out in what felt like teenager acne, where an orchard of large, pussy, cherry red craters populated my forehead and T-zone. He diagnosed the episode as liver toxicity, likely from living in a heavily polluted country for three years as well as potentially other genetic and nutritional anomalies that would all require high-priced tests to confirm. Following his hunch, he put me on a six-week cleanse that slowly shrunk the pimples - a far cry from topical serums and steroids I had used in the past that either worsened the condition or was a temporary solution to a recurring prescription. About $600 later, I was a believer.
This time around, he showed the same grace, asking me about different facets of my life over a 60min consultation: are you working right now? how is it? what happens before sleep? how is your relationship with your family? listening while drawing a map of my personhood to figure out the social determinants impacting my well-being. Over the last few years, cycles of overwhelm and chronic stress from financial instability, relationship ruptures, white supremacy, rising childhood trauma and the enduring pain of inequity have put my nervous system into overdrive leading to all kinds of weird malfunctions and adaptations from high doses of cortisol. After listening to me jabber about all my self-diagnoses and TikTok revelations, he suggested a protocol that would cost ~$2000-$2500 to begin. I laughed like I was ejecting water from my mouth, but nothing came out.
While I was personally offended by the cost of health services that may have the potential to seriously impact my well-being, I don’t directly fault him. And I really like him. Like all of us in some form, he is just playing his assumed role in capitalism - offering expertise he ‘earned’, running a business, charging ‘market’ rates, targeting a certain clientele, getting ‘his’, and hoping to make a meaningful impact somewhere in-between the fundamentals. ‘I am going to go broke trying to get better,’ I tell Ciaran, who has added me to his health insurance plan that covers partial consultation costs but no treatments or supplements; a privilege that I try to be grateful for.
The reality is, I am angry, but more so in a fatigued kind of way. I recognize that some will consider the recommended protocol progress, and something I can tangibly control. Isn’t health priceless after all? Others will wonder why I didn’t take better care of myself - resist social media, resist doom scrolling, resist the news, resist sugar, resist gluten, resist labels, resist negative vibes and negative people - and find the willpower to change. What else can you do but focus on yourself in this climate? But the question I stay awake at night thinking about is, what are the conditions that bring my body and access to the best care for my body to this place? The question is too big right now with everything going on in the world. Maybe it always will be.
A few weeks ago, the Kardashians closed out their ~14 year run of reality/not reality TV that strategically documented their families drama, trips, and transformations into cultural immortality. Altogether, they have had an outsized impact on contemporary perceptions of desirability and physical aesthetics, evolving the ‘ideal woman’ into one with long dark hair, large breasts, a teeny-tiny waist, sizable butt, and plump lips.
In 2013, Anne Helen Petersen celebrated Kim in her book, Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud: The Rise and Reign of the Unruly Woman for recoding the standards for celebrity pregnancy beauty, when her very normal weight gain while birthing life, rejected the image of a ‘cute and contained basketball bump.’ She was likened to a ‘whale’ in a meme that went viral as part of months of heavy scrutiny every time she ate anything ‘unhealthy.’ And when she wore body-con dresses to high-profile events that did not fall under traditional maternity wear, the media was offended by her fashion decisions, calling her ‘trashy vs. classy.’ Despite Kim’s desire ‘to defy pregnancy standards’ through her fashion ‘brazenness’ and a call to the media to stop bullying her - she personally struggled with the pregnancy weight gain, a common response for all women held up to relentless body and beauty standards, and especially one whose fame and finances has depended on it. Still, after her pregnancy Kim went on to promote detox teas and appetite suppressing lollipops as part of her ‘bounce back’ diet, sending a confusing message on her actual position. And according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons, there was a 40% rise in treatments amongst 20-29 year olds between 2010-2016, which can not all be attributed to the Kardashians, even though many opted for the ‘Kylie Package’ at clinics.
The challenge with the Kardashians impact on women’s bodies is that they almost exclusively deny or divert any questions about their plastic surgeries (with the exception of Khloe recently on the season’s wrap up show) or acknowledge their access to experts and trainers to maintain their appearances. Instead, they prefer to emphasize that they ‘work really hard’ - a message that effectively convinces young women that their appearance is fully in their control, and a measure of either personal success or failure. The power of their shared platform, and the consistency in their messaging across sisters have set up the ideal conditions for an insecure fanbase to purchase a solution to the problem of an imperfect body when launched: lip kits and body shapers, both of which have grown into billion dollar businesses.
It is undeniable that external decorations, whether it is fashion, make-up, jewelry, tattoos, can inject a dose of personal confidence, the pursuit of feeling good and expressing parts of who we are and how we want to be perceived. Psychologically, the longevity of this strategy is questionable without matching it with shifting an internal belief, which in its absence is great for creating many recurring revenue streams.
During the pandemic, there was another rise in demand for plastic surgery, which was aptly called the ‘Zoom Boom’ by the Washington Post and ‘a perfect storm’ by experts in the field. The article cites the experience of Sarah Hayes, a senior program manager, who says after looking at her face for many hours on Zoom, she became distressed, noting that she ‘started to look older: fine lines and droopy.’ Those who were unable to access cosmetic treatments during the lockdown expressed feeling anxious, having ‘got use to looking a certain way’ as reported in an article by Alys Davies in the BBC.
I’ve become increasingly self-conscious of my deepening frown lines, and have participated in routine conversations around botox and other facial procedures. Though I am hesitant to start a new life-long budget line, I am not immune to wanting a quick solution to insecurities rudely projected on to me. Whether it is laser hair removal, Brazilian butt lifts, body shapers or botox, the market will continue to find ways to ‘solve’ women’s bodies. It is a form of empowerment and confidence that we can control and pay for, even if it might keep us from asking, what are the conditions that continue to destroy our sense of self and body image?
Earlier this week, The Cut declared that the GirlBoss is Dead, after a string of articles claiming the same over the last three years as capitalism and feminism melded in unsettling ways. This declaration comes after the exodus of many GirlBosses from their companies due to damning allegations of toxic and racist workplace practices, just 7 years after the term was coined by Sophia Amoruso, the founder of NastyGal, who was accused of the same.
The game of the GirlBoss is rooted in taking power from men rather than dismantling the power men have retained in most parts of the world, while establishing a corporate vision for feminism. Whether it was Audrey Gelman of The Wing, Steph Korey of Away, Christene Barberich of Refinery29 or Yael Aflalo of Reformation, who all recently stepped down - they all typically followed the same script: attributing their ‘self-made’ success to hard work and long hours, rarely considering intersectional privileges or acknowledging their team.
Much of the critique of the girlboss trope is how it infantilizes women into a palatable and cutesy power that wears sweatshirts with pink slogans, strategically diluting the movement from structural changes that can impact all women, not just the wealthy and educated. The focus on the girlboss narrative and individual empowerment through capitalist aspirations has meant less support and interest in collectively advocating for affordable childcare, after-school programs, 24-hour free nurseries, equal pay and wage transparency and contract work with guaranteed minimum hours - issues that are less marketable and most severely impact racialized low and middle-income households. Despite many of these issues being declared over 50 years ago at a conference held by National Women’s Liberation Movement, there has been very little progress across class because the focus on woke capitalism and making a difference through consumerism has weakened movements that need class solidarity and advocacy to take root.
Still, the women ousted from their companies were held to standards that their male counterparts simply are not as often, though this too is changing. The challenge with girlbosses is not their ambition or accomplishments, which is admirable and has been an important source of innovation and inspiration, but rather the assumption that women are inherently moral in power, and can individually fight the exploitation of women, people of colour, and low-wage labour that is encoded within capitalist structures. Similar to how ‘trickle down’ economics have shown to simply make the rich richer, trickle down feminism mostly benefits those who have access to participate in it. In moving from asking the question, ‘who is the system designed to work for?’ to ‘how can I make the system work for me?’ - the domination of the girlboss narrative and aesthetic has contributed to the dilution of intersectional feminist values, and reveals the inevitable distortion when mixing social justice with capitalism.
The death of the girlboss comes at a time when female labour participation is at an all-time low over the last ~30 years after the fall out from the pandemic. During the pandemic, low-income and racialized women were more likely to lose their jobs, often in the service industry, or choose to leave work due to burnout, the health risk to their families and a lack of childcare while schools and daycares were closed. According to a study led by Gemma Zamarro at the University of Arkansas, about 44% of women in the US reported being the only one in their household providing care when schools and daycares shut down, compared to 14% of men. Even some higher-income married women have chosen to pause or downshift their careers and downsize or relocate to afford living off of a single income reports Megan Cassella in Politico. While the pandemic certainly was a blow to women’s participation in the workforce, experts have noted that rates have been stagnating since the 2000s due to a increasing lack of social supports. This shift may push more women into entrepreneurial and freelance work, creating more flexibility to support their family, creativity and well-being, but not without financial and health vulnerabilities. Health insurance and maternity leave is still routinely tied to full-time work, and women’s limited access to capital can mean having to leverage risk for debt to get started.
To add salt to the wound - the Supreme court in the US overturned Roe v. Wade on Wednesday, refusing to block Texas’ abortion ban, which allows anyone to sue any individual who aids or abets an abortion after 6-weeks; a model that Florida will soon follow and likely other conservative states. ‘You cannot ban abortion, you can only ban safe access to abortion for the poor. The wealthy will always be able to access dignified and safe care. Abortion bans are racialized class warfare,’ wrote social justice educator, Rania El-Mugammar on Instagram. The decision, led by five Republican judges, includes Amy Coney Barrett - a politician who is emblematic of white feminism.
White feminism has had more airtime since Amy Cooper weaponized her whiteness against a Black man in Central Park, which was closely followed by the horrifying murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, leading to a racial uprising across the US and world. It is the feminist worldview led by ‘well-meaning’ white women and saviors who reject an intersectional analysis, including race, sexuality and class, to maintain the privileges afforded by whiteness.
The Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist (TERF) movement is a derivative of white feminism, given that Black Trans Women are amongst the most vulnerable community in North America. So is feminist capitalism and girlbosses - which are ultimately all political positions that fight for equality while also advancing whiteness, imperialism and capitalism. Most recently, the author of Against White Feminism: Notes on Disruption, Rafia Zakaria, called the United States now abandoned ‘War on Terror’ in Afghanistan the ‘First Feminist War’. In an interview in The Cut, Zakaria shares that The Feminist Majority, a non-profit led by white women that organizes around feminist issues in the US started a campaign in the 1990s called ‘The Coalition to End Gender Apartheid in Afghanistan.” After 9/11, the US wanted to invade a country to showcase its power, and amongst other geopolitical considerations, was inspired by The Feminist Majority’s campaign to select Afghanistan and position the invasion as a way to ‘save Afghan women.” ‘..when Colin Powell announced the invasion of Afghanistan, the Feminist Majority leaders were present there,’ says Zakaria, marking a huge turning point in white feminism and its direct contact with the machinery of American war.
For Black and Brown women living in North America, white feminism has been positioned as ‘progress,’ and something to be grateful for, because at least you’re not experiencing honor killings, forced marriage and female genital cutting back home, right? In showcasing Eastern cultures as wholly ‘regressive,’ white feminism gets to continue to lead the helm of ‘progress.’
It is not lost on me that I am part of the first generation of Gujarati Indian women who has the privilege of some choice over my career, body, the decision to get married or have a child and how to express myself. If I compare my lived experience to my mother’s and grandmothers - it is impossible to not acknowledge our difference in freedoms. And yet because of how my positionality and privileges are mobilized in so-called Canada, North America and globally to support these freedoms - it feeds the machinery of white supremacy and capitalism that prevents freedoms and liberation for all women. Having an intersectional analysis is the difference between taking a pill and reimagining well-being from the ground up.
Yesterday, I mailed a sample of spit to get a comprehensive DNA test to chart out a plan that my Naturopath said can keep me off of prescription medication. I’m not opposed to prescription medication at all, but I worry about not at least exploring the root of symptoms that have become chronic. My partner said he would help cover more rent this month so I can take care of my health.
I will take care of my health. I will try my best.
And, I know my ‘inflamed condition is a political one.’ Chronic stress and the control of women’s bodies and sense of self is inherited from a lineage shaped by patriarchal tradition and religion, migration and colonialism, and upheld by power structures that cut social supports and community infrastructure that more directly impact women who are primary caregivers, keeping us in states of survival while celebrating hollow and individual expressions of women’ empowerment to obstruct us from mobilizing and organizing together for deep societal change.
I will take care of myself, yes, and I hope to keep asking better questions.
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